When JAMES LANCASTER tore his ACL in 2012, it meant giving up what he felt was his identity—professional football. For two years, he waited on a donor meniscus list to have a meniscal allograft and couldn’t run or jump. Because of three surgeries and physical rehab, James faced difficulty maintaining a job. He sold scrap brass and worked as a personal trainer to get by.
Having been introduced to CrossFit in college, James turned to it during his dark time of healing. Rather than being intimidated by the sport, he admired the challenge. Not being good at it and having to work extra hard gave him a feeling of self-reward. After only two years of consistent CrossFit, 29-year-old James is the only athlete in Memphis to advance to this year’s CrossFit Games Regional in Nashville (May 26-28).
His favorite workouts include a short, powerful sprint and a super long chipper (lots of movements at a great volume). A high caloric intake and plenty of sleep help him maintain a twice daily, five day a week training regimen. Despite his success, James now recognizes how easily everything can be taken away and doesn’t center his identity on sports. “I’m an average guy,” he says. “I didn’t wake up yesterday and say, ‘hmm, I’ll go to regionals this year’.” He feels the support he’s received from his gym community—made up of all ages and walks of life— is humbling and has helped him succeed not only in CrossFit but as a person.
In 2016, James and his friend, Joc, were invited to speak at the Shelby County Jail, which they saw as an opportunity to help others. From there, a fitness program was born. Under James’s instruction, the men at 201 Poplar break into teams and hold five week series events similar to the CrossFit Games setup. Through these activities, they learn about communication, teamwork, and leadership. More importantly, they see it’s okay to be vulnerable. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve trusted anyone or had any kind of guidance. James gets to know these men and understands their challenges, their need for survival mode, and the psychological issues they deal with.
James insists: “Suffering is suffering. Everything else is fine detail. What we go through is different, but we are all hurting and all deserve unconditional love.” He is quick to tell those in his CrossFit classes: “I don’t care what you did. Nothing can ruin the grace I have for you.” After nearly a year of this program, those involved have had the fewest number of bad behavior incidents, and they look forward to the sessions.
James wants to continue helping others who have no voice and hopes this outreach program will cause a ripple effect. He would like to see more programs for different age levels and in other communities outside of Memphis. “The old Memphis isn’t here anymore,” James says. What’s happening at 201 Poplar shows that there’s more good than bad.
By Susanna Lancaster. Photo by Philip Murphy.